Yesterday I was going through some old boxes and I found a diary I kept from my days touring with Ray Charles. It covers August to September 1988, when I was 19 years old, and a few months into the gig.
Mixed in with angst-y stuff about girlfriends and petty squabbles are gems like “Jimmy Smith opened up for us and was swinging!” As I read it for the first time in years, I alternately smiled and cringed.
The entry below is from the time we played the Jerry Lewis Telethon – the annual, day-long live broadcast to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
“Jeff” is Jeff Ballard, the drummer. “Kenny” or “K.C.” is Kenny Carr, the guitar player. I played bass. The band I mention is the telethon house band, which backed up the guest artists. Ray was weary of house band rhythm sections, so he brought us along, and we just used their horn section. There’s a few moments during the live broadcast when they would cut away from the main stage, and that’s when they had the rehearsals I mention. Also, each song in Ray’s book had its own number, which is how we referred to them – that’s where "449" comes from.
Early morning plane flight w/Kenny & Jeff to Las Vegas, NV to do the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Driven to telethon in special car (Ray gets limo) + get lost in sea of confusion. There are people in our dressing room, no one knows when our rehearsal is, Jeff goes to commissary to eat, I follow. Later, the band, which has been playing for 21 hrs, takes a break when we are supposed to rehearse w/Ray. Ray gets furious. 15 minutes before we go on, we climb on the stand and rehearse 449, “Some Enchanted Evening” w/the house band, and then Ray plays a tune I have never heard and expects me to follow when I can barely hear a note he’s playing. I get upset, because I’m going to have to do this on TV, but just before we go on, Ray takes me + K.C. in to his dressing room and gives us the changes.
Me – “How are we gonna end it?”
R.C. – “Just follow me. We’ll put a turnaround on the end. You DO know what a turnaround is, don’t you?”
Me – “Yes.”
We wait in our dressing room (which we shared w/Charo) until someone tells us to hurry, we’re late. We rush to the stage, climb up to the stand while the cameras are rolling (very disorganized) and play. I’m nervous, but I do OK. On the second tune, me + Kenny fuck up the ending big time because we can’t hear Ray + he takes it out in the middle of the form. Ray calls me in after the show – “I thought you said you knew what a turnaround was!”. He was pissed.
Flirt w/cute girls, meet Spuds Mackenzie. Go to hotel (comp rooms!). Beautiful single room w/huge bed, mirror on ceiling, octagonal large bath in room. I get miserable. I hate Las Vegas.
The combination of late-80’s cultural iconography (Spuds Mackenzie!), getting chewed out by Ray, and the lonely, post-gig comedown feeling neatly sum up my memories of those days.
Although more video from the tour seems to show up daily, I couldn’t find this performance online. If you’d like to hear what Ray sounded like back then, here’s a couple videos from the two years I was in the band-
Cool part: Signing the NPR studio guestbook right after Steve Martin and Natalie Portman.
Not-so-cool part: When we started talking, she asked me what I did for a living, and I replied “Oh, I’ve been asking myself that for many years now HAHAHAHA…” After an awkward pause, she made it clear that it wasn’t just an idle question – the interview had actually started. Thankfully, they edited that part out.
It came about because of an email from Greg Blair, an assistant art professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen, SD. He had seen my site In Bb 2.0, and wanted to know if I would be interested in producing a similar project with the students and faculty at the school. I liked the idea, but I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of project we would do, or what could make it more than just a rehash of In Bb.
After talking on the phone with Greg, a few interesting aspects of the project took shape that could make it different from the other site. It would be produced entirely in Aberdeen, over a short time period, with the people and resources in the community. In the way that In Bb connected people from around the world, I wondered if working on this project could bring together people living in the same town. Is that what comes after Web 2.0 — Local 3.0? Also, I didn’t know anything about Aberdeen, which made it interesting. And the Google Map image had a certain remote appeal:
We kept some of the ideas from In Bb, like having all the music be in the same key (we decided later on G major), and using YouTube for the videos.
So we scheduled 5 days in October for me to visit, and came up with a rough itinerary – an initial orientation for anyone interested, 2 1/2 days of shooting video, and 2 1/2 days for editing and web programming. This would all involve different departments in the school, like Art, Music and Computers, as well as anyone in town that wanted to be a part of it.
I knew we weren’t in Jersey anymore when I landed at Aberdeen Regional Airport and saw a recycle bin labeled “pop cans only”, and a large sign announcing the Million Dollar Bird Hunt. Apparently the town is well known as a pheasant hunting destination, and the Bird Hunt is a promotion involving banding some birds and releasing them into the wild. There are cash prizes, up to a million dollars, for shooting a bird with one of the bands. They even had a bowl of promotional bands at the airport – I had to grab a few.
The next day started out with the initial meeting. We took over one of Greg’s art classes and had maybe 100 students in the room. I had prepared a Google Docs Presentation (cloud computing FTW!) and took everybody through my process in creating In Bb, talked about the as-yet-unnamed new project, and laid out the schedule for the week. We armed everyone who was interested with video cameras and sent them out to shoot.
Here’s some interesting stories behind a few of the videos in the site-
One of the ideas that I had for In Bb which I never got to explore was to use an ensemble in a video, rather than just an individual musician. Greg told me the school had a jazz ensemble, so I came up with a plan to “improvise” using the whole group. During their rehearsal, Greg, a camera-person and I walked over to the band room and gave them a quick brief about the project. The band director and the students were game, so I wrote 5 sets of chord tones in large numbers on the whiteboard for the students to copy down, something like this-
In the video I hold up my fingers to indicate which group of chord tones to play, relative to the G major scale. Each musician can pick any of the chord tones in that group, and play them in any octave, as long at it’s not lower than the G below middle C, to keep things from getting muddy. Despite the fact that it’s an unusual way of making music, everyone picked it up right away, and this video is the first and only take we shot.
Lu, another Chinese foreign exchange student, volunteered to read a poem in Chinese. It seemed like a great idea, and I thought it could work well paired with some footage that needed audio. The video is an animation drawn with markers on the whiteboard in the NSU computer lab by Lauren, an art student. We added a mirror-image effect and the soundtrack of Lu reading her poem about color, inspired by the animation.
This was taken from Greg’s car on my iPhone running the Timelapser app. We were driving from my hotel to the Red Rooster Coffee House, a really nice local hangout (try the hummus sandwich) where the stairwell guitar video was shot. The audio is a recording of an NSU group piano class, reversed and slowed down 50%.
By mid-week we had an amazing 70+ videos, which were collected and edited by student volunteers in a late-night computer lab session, with indispensable help from Keum-Taek Jung, a professor who everyone calls “Tek”.
We tried playing the videos in different combinations. Similar to In Bb, only a small fraction had that certain quality that allowed them to work well with the other videos. There were some creative videos with good performances that we just weren’t able to use, but I thought we had some great stuff.
As we were making the video selections, we started talking about the web interface. We began with an interface similar to In Bb, but thinking about how the focus on this project was the location rather than the key, I had the idea to use a map-based interface. I mentioned this idea to Bob, a talented, about-to-graduate programmer. When I saw him again later that afternoon he had a working version of the site, with embedded videos in a custom Google Map, using their API. I was blown away, and thrilled – the site was really starting to take shape.
By Friday afternoon when I left, we had selected our videos and put up a beta version of the site. But in the following days as Bob and I were working to finish up the design, it became apparent that the Google Maps API wasn’t made for this kind of application, and we needed some custom code from somebody experienced in this area. I remembered reading this article by Derek Sivers about hiring programmers, and decided to put a post up on Elance. Five people submitted proposals, and I chose to go with a programmer named Alex who seemed experienced and well recommended.
He turned out to be great, and quickly got me the code we needed to finish the site. This was my first time using a service like this, and I’m sure that experiences vary, but it seems like a great resource for someone who needs to bring in an occasional heavy hitter, or a really powerful way for a musician to create web-based content or an app, and stay focused on the music.
All told, the experience was a lot of fun. One thing that surprised me was the creative freedom I felt when I was there. If we wanted to shoot somewhere or needed to use a certain piece of gear, the answer was always yes. Or if we wanted to find someone that played a certain instrument, a few phone calls would be made, and we’d have who we needed. I wouldn’t have guessed that Midwestern friendliness would translate so easily into creative potential, but so it does.
I’ve decided this “Em-Pee-Three” thing is probably going to catch on, so I’m digitizing my last few CD’s, selling them to Academy, backing up the ol’ hard drive, and gloriously stepping foot in the 21st century.
I was a wide-eyed 17 year old kid from the Valley, newly arrived in New York City to study at NYU. 24-hour bagel shops! The subway! Jaywalking! Awesome. My mind was wide open and I was hungry for new experiences. I soon stumbled on a late-night show on WYNC called “New Sounds”, hosted by John Schaefer. It completely sucked me in, and I fell in love with the sounds of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, The Kronos Quartet, Laurie Anderson, Meredeth Monk, and many others. But one particular night, the show froze me to my seat, and affected me the way no other piece of music had before.
Gavin Bryars’ work “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” is an amazing, gorgeous work, consisting of a street recording of a “tramp” (the word used in the liner notes) singing 13 bars of the title hymn, looped over and over, accompanied by full orchestra. The orchestration changes subtly each time you hear the loop, slowly and beautifully evolving into an alternate harmonization of the melody, over the course of an hour and 14 minutes on the most popular recording. I still have not heard another piece of music that moves me the way this does.
Listening to it again after so many years, I was struck by two things-
-The “remix” character of the work (creating a new accompaniment to a vocal line) still feels very contemporary.
-But the slow, evolving, melancholy nature of the work is completely incompatible with the way many of us discover new music now. Mostly I learn about music from blogs, where I may spend a minute listening to a track to decide if I like it. Or if I get a recommendation, I’ll check out a 30-second excerpt on iTunes.
Hearing a short excerpt of this piece while sitting at your computer, maybe checking your email, just won’t work. You would completely miss the magic of this piece! It’s best heard in its entirety, in a quiet room, on good speakers and with no distractions. If I learned about this music today, I don’t think I would have ever got past the 30-second preview. Makes me sad. What might I be missing now?
[Insert incredibly poignant and incisive observation about how this is a microcosm of the larger issues relating to our distracted, cheapened and shallow lifestyles here. Or don't.]
Well, you’ve been warned. Here’s an excerpt. But you can get the whole thing here.
Not long ago, young artist, musician and Friend of Science Dana recorded a cover version of Pomplamoose’s “Beat The Horse” in her high school music lab. When I heard her track, I was simply blown away by how great it was. Anyone that can record in a classroom on a $50 USB mic and sound that good clearly has got mad skillz, as the kids say.
Coincidentally, “Beat The Horse” is one of my favorite Pomplamoose tunes, and I had always wanted to do a remix of it. I asked Dana if I could use her vocal tracks, and she was kind enough to get them to me a on a flash drive. So, complements of Dana and myself, here is the Science for Girls remix of Dana’s cover of “Beat The Horse”-
Beat The Horse (Pomplamoose cover) – Science for Girls feat. Dana
You can download the track here, and don’t forget to support Pomplamoose by buying some music from their iTunes page.
My dad always had music playing in the house when we were growing up. He listened to the best of the best – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Art Tatum, Trane, Chet Baker, Lennie Tristano, Oscar Peterson. He had amazing taste, and an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and classical music. I owe so much to him.
Sometimes when we’d be talking about music, I’d mention an album or composition, and he’d make this sound – sort of like an elongated guttural “gor”. I think it was related to the British “cor!”, which would have come from growing up in London’s East End. It was his way of saying “Amazing!” or “Of course!”, and it indicated that the music meant something really special to him. The pieces he deemed “gor”-worthy always became favorites of mine too, and I still go back to them when I need some inspiration or musical nourishment. Here’s some of those tracks:
I had just discovered Mozart’s Requiem Mass, and was blasting it daily from my room. He took the opportunity to introduce me to the lesser known but equally awesome C Minor Mass. This is the Kyrie.
My dad loved West Coast Jazz. The counterpoint in the Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker pianoless quartet was a mix of his two favorite genres.
I remember listening to Bach organ fugues together in the car and thinking that music just couldn’t get any better. Every note was the inevitable consequence of the one that came before it. This beautiful performance of the A Minor fugue on piano by Michel Block is one of my favorite recordings ever.
Another Jazz-Classical bridge, Dave Brubeck playing “Brother Can You Spare A Dime” as an ersatz fugue. The track that got me into jazz.
If you’ve listened to these tracks, that was the sound of my house when I was a kid.